"The garden," Stephanie Alexander explains, "is a magical place."
On our recent trip to Adelaide for Tasting Australia, Billy and I find ourselves at The Manse for a Petit Degustation with Stephanie Alexander.
We'd walked past The Manse at first. Tucked away in a leafy side street in north Adelaide, Billy and I have to double-back when we realise we should have turned left a block before.
The Manse is housed in a former mansion, a beautiful old building that sits amongst a carpet of fallen autumn leaves. We follow the narrow path up to the small and darkened doorway. It's opened by a smiling waitress who quickly leads us to our own table, a room that's one part austere to two parts baroque. Gilt-edged mirrors, Italian chandeliers and a backdrop of black patterned wallpaper add colour and dramatics.
Halfway through lunch, Stephanie takes the microphone and tells the assembled diners about the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Foundation, an initiative set up to provide pleasurable food education in government primary schools.
It's one thing to read about the success of the Kitchen Garden Foundation. It's quite another to see its founder speaking with fervour and heartfelt passion about what the program means not just to her, but to the school kids that get involved each year.
The Kitchen Garden Foundation is the only school-based gardening program that is fully integrated into the learning curriculum. It involves primary school children tending a productive organic fruit and vegetable garden, one that is not a small patch, but measuring a sizeable 800 square metres.
A homestyle kitchen is where kids learn how to cook the fruits and vegetables they have grown. The kids -- in primary school years three to six -- spend 45 minutes in the garden and 1.5 hours in the kitchen every week.
Lessons are taught by specialists, not teachers, but accompanied by teachers and volunteers. The success of the program has been phenomenal. There are currently 45 participating schools in Victoria and 88 across Australia, a total of 18,000 kids per week. By 2012 it is hoped that 250 schools will be involved in the program, a total of 30,000 kids per week.
Pamplie French butter
There is no shortage of schools wanting to be involved, but the issue, as always, is funding. The $60,000 government grant to schools can be used for infrastructure only, and not toward the two part-time specialists. The salaries for the part-time gardener and cook will cost schools about $50,000 per year.
Successful schools put their heads together and find creative ways to raise funds. It requires a committed principal, a convinced school council and a supportive community, Stephanie says.
The children are encouraged to design their own gardens, and often beds are in the shape of circles or stars with winding paths between them. The children are encouraged to see the garden as a place of observation, investigation and discovery, as well as a source of food.
The reward is significant. The children plant, grow, make pasta, cook lunch and learn how to share meals and enjoy with friends. Parents in particular comment that their children's behaviour changes, as they become more interested in cooking and shopping.
Stephanie even relates how one mother said she came home one day saying she was too tired to cook dinner, to which her son replied, "Don't worry, I'll whip something up, Mum."
Sunflower seed with leek soil and Meredith chevre
paired with 2005 Chandon Blanc de Blanc, Yarra Valley
In hindsight, then, it seems appropriate, that our first course has been designed to resemble a small garden pot, a sunflower seed mousse that is scattered with leek soil and two carefully placed microgreens that look to be sprouting forth.
The leek soil tastes of toast crumbs, a pleasing sense of crunch against the smoothness of the mousse. Hidden at the bottom is a large chunk of Meredith chevre, perhaps a little too big as by the time you reach it, there is nothing left to temper its distictive sharpness.
I'd already finished my entire bread roll, the accompanying pat of Pamplie butter so smooth and creamy I practically put slices of it onto my bread.
Whipped foie gras with almond, tarragon and grape
paired with 2007 Simmonet-Febvre Chablis, France
Our second course is another beautifully plated dish, a trail of quenelles and foams scattered with almond crumbs and carefully placed micro leaves. The whipped foie gras is so light and airy it dissolves on the tongue. The presence of foam seem a little outdated but the cloud of cucumber does refresh the palate.
Pink snapper with noodle, cabbage consomme and cashew nut
paired with 2000 Will Taylor Semillon, Hunter Valley, NSW
Pink snapper arrives with a fitting pink background, a pink sticky syrup painted on the plate.
The pink snapper plate before the pouring of soup
The pink snapper initially arrives without the soup, a second waiter follows not long behind with a pitcher of warm consomme. The tableside pouring adds a lovely sense of theatrics and attentiveness.
Pouring on the cabbage consomme
Broken glass noodles on the Jasper Conran spoon
The snapper is firm, if a touch overdone, but we relish the sweetness of the cabbage consomme. The glass noodles are pretty but their short lengths make them difficult to retrieve with both the shallow bowl and the elegant Jasper Conran spoon. I manage to finish all my noodles and the soup regardless - where there's a will, there's a way!
Rangers Valley grade 5 sirloin and brisket with onion, peanut and radish
paired with 2008 Syrahmi Maelstrom Shiraz, Heathcote, VIC
Our final savoury dish is an interesting mix of components. A square of grade 5 sirloin is juicy but both Billy and I refer the plaque of brisket even more, pan-fried to a delightfully fatty crisp. Onion cups are a clever idea although I think the peanut sauce inside them tends to overwhelm the flavour of the beef. A tumble of toasted rice and barley add nuttiness and texture, thin slivers of radish add bite.
Lemon mousse with meringue, honeycomb and
lemon gelato with fizzy pink lemonade
Dessert is a substitution from the original menu. It had been a busy week for The Manse who had catered for the Lifestyle FOOD Channel Australian Regional Competition two nights before, as well as a media dinner at Sparrow Kitchen. We'd attended both and noticed similarities in the menu and plating.
The Manse had also swept the awards at the Regional Competition, winning best entree, best main, best dessert and best region in a day-long cook off featuring teams of two chefs and one apprentice. It was the first time one restaurant had won all three courses, and host Joanna Savill reassured the gathered assembly that the blind judging for each coures was done by three distinct and non-conferring panels.
We're disappointed we don't get a chance to try the planned dessert of "chocolate textures, liquorice, blueberries, honeycomb" but find solace in the lemon, passionfruit and raspbery tribute. The lemon mousse is light, the splinters of honeycomb are sweet and the pink lemonade sprinkles pop and crackle on the tongue.
Grab Your Fork dined at The Manse as a guest of South Australia Tourism.
>> Read the next South Australia 2010 post
(Enoteca Restaurant with Antonio Carluccio)
< Read the first South Australia 2010 post
(lunch with Maggie Beer and Rosemary Shrager)
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142 Tynte Street, North Adelaide
Adelaide, South Australia
Tel: +61 (08) 8267 4636
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5/27/2010 01:54:00 a.m.